eMuseum Southeast Asia Ceramics

Si Satchanalai

Thai ceramics were among the first Southeast Asian wares to be seriously studied, starting with WA Graham’s 1922 article “Pottery in Siam” in the Journal of the Siam Society. The field only gained momentum in the 1960s following Charles Nelson Spinks’ important contributions on Tai pottery and in the 1970s from the discovery of the Prasat Ban Phluang temple site.

Click on markers on the map to find out about individual sites in Thailand.

Si Satchanalai

Identified and written about since the late 19th century, the kiln sites of Si Satchanalai are among the most well-known of Thai ceramics. The term Si Satchanalai covers a large number of kilns (over 600 in the 3 clusters of Ban Ko NoiTukatha and Ban Pa Yang), although it actually refers to a walled settlement about 10km from Ban Ko Noi in central Thailand.

The group of wares from this area used to be called Sawankhalok and were differentiated from Sukhothai wares. This was because, before proper excavations were conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, people thought that production started at Sukhothai, and that when the clay was exhausted, potters moved to Sawankhalok/Si Satchanalai.

New data has shown that this idea is now no longer valid – Sukhothai and Sawankhalok/Si Satchanalai wares were found together at the Tak Om Koi burial sites on the Thai-Myanmar border, and on the Koh Khram shipwreck in the Gulf of Thailand. Excavations also proved that the oldest kiln was at Ban Ko Noi, which produced the oldest Thai glazed ceramics, possibly dating to around 1300s. The site has been severely disturbed and no further refined dating can be proposed until chemical analysis of the sherds has been done.

There is some early specialisation for these 3 clusters of kilns: Ban Pa Yang produced mainly architectural fixtures, Tukatha (named after the Thai word for “dolls”) made figurines, while Ban Ko Noi manufactured “Mon”-type wares and early underglaze decorated wares. But Brown (1988: 60) says “sherd debris of trade wares at all three sites today is substantially similar.”

As can be seen from the pictures where the pieces have been broken off, the Si Satchanalai ware is high-fired stoneware and the fired body is greyish with black spots. This comes from the high iron oxide content of the clay and the iron appears as black, red or silvery inclusions.

Reddish tints (for example, at the bottom of the headless figurines) can occur when the ceramic piece is fired in a reducing atmosphere, that is, when there is too little oxygen in the kiln during the firing process. When the piece is brought out to cool, the increase in the level of oxygen in the atmosphere causes the exposed parts of the clay to reoxydise, turning them red.

At Ban Ko Noi, the earliest wares included dishes decorated with underglaze iron depictions of flowers in the wells, with fish on the cavettos, such as the example shown below. There are no clear sources of inspiration for this motif, but specimens of the flowers and fish design have been found on the Turiang shipwreck, dated to around 1370.

Stoneware antefix with monochrome white glaze, probably from Ban Pa Yang, Si Satchanalai
15th-16th C
H: 17.1 cm, W: 12.5 cm
NUS Museum S1954-0074-001-0
Tukatha figurine of lovers embracing with designs on the sarongs painted in underglaze black (previously published in Guérin & van Oenen 2005: 263, plate 386). In Thai custom, such figurines were used in ceremonies connected with rain and fertility (ibid.: 262). This example is unusual because the couple is kissing rather than merely embracing, which is the typical position (see for example, Brown 1988: pl. XXXIII e).
Possibly 16th C
H: 10 cm
Private collection
More Tukatha figurines (Tuton sia kaborn or Tukata sia kaban), female forms with slightly crazed, celadon glaze and missing heads. Other examples have been found in Banten Lama, West Java. The missing heads of these figurines led some researchers to hypothesise a sacrificial ritual (Spinks 1978: 86–88; Çoedès 1939). However, Guérin and van Oenen (2005: 251–267) note that the figurines are seldom found with heads still attached and explain that the frequency of missing heads may be due to the weakness of the joint between head and body. Male figurines are also known, many also missing heads. They are often depicted with fighting cocks in place of children, but others hold fans, bottles, or other objects. The hypothesis of sacrificial rituals therefore must be judged unproven. These may not be a special category, but just one of a larger group of figurines, including humans, animals, and supernatural beings such as demons.
15th C
Left: H: 6.8 cm, L: 4.3 cm, W: 4.3 cm; NUS Museum S1954-0062-001-0
Right: H: 6.8 cm, L: 6 cm, W: 5.1 cm; NUS Museum S1954-0045-001-0
Figurine water dropper of a squatting hunchbacked man with a chignon, wearing a dotted sarong in underglaze iron brown; holds in right hand a pot that serves as a spout. There are many examples of hunchback droppers in Thailand; some examples are known from North Sumatra, and a wide range of these figures of various qualities is reportedly found in South Sulawesi. The figures are sometimes misinterpreted as female due to the hair pulled back and secured with a pin, but they are intended to represent males (Guérin & van Oenen 2005: 202–202). Although the use of these objects is unknown, one theory proposes that they represent sorcerer-magicians (ibid.: 199).
Probably late 15th or early 16th C
H: 8.5 cm, W: 5.7 cm, L: 7 cm
Private collection

Second half of the 14th century. From the Tak Om Koi burial sites.
D: 26.5 cm
Collection of Robert R. Charles. Photograph by Kim Retka
(Photo source: Brown 1988: pl. XXIX a)
By 1400s, the kilns of Si Satchanalai were producing celadons as evidenced by the wasters (below) found in excavations.
Si Satchanalai celadon kiln wasters comprising a bottle, bowls and dishes
14th-15th C
Private collection
This is corroborated by the number of shipwrecks of that period that have Thai celadons as part of their cargo. The Nanyang (c. 1380), Longquan (c. 1400) and Royal Nanhai (c. 1460, shown below) included celadon plates. The latter had celadons, together with underglaze iron decorated wares, such as those shown here.
D: 12.5 cm
NUS Museum S2003-0022-016-0
D: 23 cm
NUS Museum S2003-0022-012-0
The Royal Nanhai had at least two other types of wares that typify Sawankhalok/ Si Satchanalai production, including monochrome whites and monochrome browns.

Monochrome white covered potiche from the Royal Nanhai wreck (c. 1460). The glazing and decoration, if any, have been eroded after having been buried at sea for centuries.
H: 15 cm
NUS Museum S2003-0022-002-0
Compare the above potiche with the one below from the Sawankhalok/Si Satchanalai kilns.
H: 11 cm; D: 11.5 cm
NUS Museum S1968-0053-001-0

See also the kiln site named Sawankhalok on this map.

Sources: Brown 1988; Rooney 1989; Miksic 2009; www.maritimeasia.ws